Blaney a surprise 1st round out, a look at the 4 drivers’ nights who got eliminated at Bristol

BRISTOL, Tenn — Denny Hamlin’s first round finishes were only 13th, 12th and 21st respectively. Martin Truex Jr’s were 22nd, 2nd and 24th. They’ll still advance onto the Round of 12. That’s because the four drivers that were eliminated weren’t any better and they lacked the playoff points to do anything about it.

William Byron started the playoffs with a fifth place run at Darlington but was only 21st and 38th after as he crashed early at Bristol. Byron looked like a sleeper contender to make a long playoff run too. He won the regular season finale at Daytona last month and entered the postseason with two straight top five finishes and three top eight’s in his last four starts. He even began the playoffs with a top five finish in the Southern 500 as he brought his No. 24 Chevrolet home fifth for a third straight top five effort.

Then, a rough 21st place finish at Richmond ensued. Bristol’s crash on Lap 232 followed to where he came home 37th and saw his playoff run end. He made it to the Round of 12 last year.

Cole Custer finished 12th in Bristol, 14th at Richmond and 23rd in Bristol.

Matt DiBenedetto was 21st, 17th and 19th respectively himself. He just had bad luck.

DiBenedetto and the Wood Brothers’ ultimate goal in 2020 was obviously a NASCAR Cup Series championship. The first goal though was to at least make the playoffs to give them a chance to do so. Unfortunately, their championship dreams were dashed on Saturday night.

DiBenedetto, entered in a precarious position. He was -25 in the standings and needed to almost win in order to advance to the second round. They were aggressive early in taking just two tires on his first pit stop following the first caution of the night. The track position paid off, until it didn’t.

He fell towards the end of the run and finished out of the points. Then, in Stage 2, DiBenedetto had to pit early for a loose wheel on Lap 186. That put him down in 29th, three laps down. Remarkably though, he made up all three laps by the end of the stage.

He passed leader Kyle Busch on track for one of his laps back. Then, William Byron crashed on Lap 232 which DiBenedetto took the wave around to get a second lap back. 17 laps later the caution would come out for Ryan Newman, one lap away from the stage break and DiBenedetto was in the free pass spot to get his lap back.

He found new life. It was short lived. He’d get lapped again on Lap 315 and never rebound. DiBenedetto finished 19th, but was way too far out to make the Round of 12.

“If our didn’t team didn’t have bad luck lately, we wouldn’t have any at all,” DiBenedetto said.

With his playoffs over, he focuses on the remaining seven races and where he’ll race next year. Wood Brothers Racing has till the end of the month to pick up his option for next season.

“I can’t possibly explain to people the emotional rollercoaster of doing this for a living,” he said. “I am very appreciative to do it and love it, and I hope I’m driving for this team next year and hope to keep on doing it.  We have a lot to build off of. We’re just barely getting started, but, man, it is tough.

“I’m glad we made the playoffs. I’m proud of my team. Tonight shows the fight that we have as a team, rebounding like that. I just hate that we miss the next round and had some not-so-good races, bad luck tonight, you name it, but we’ve got a lot of season left. We still have a lot of positions in points to fight for and we have fast race cars like you see tonight, so we still have a lot of stuff left and hopefully a lot of good things to come.”

He said he has a future with the Wood Brothers but it’s only if they want him. DiBenedetto has a multi year contract for 2021, 2022 and 2023 to remain in the No. 21 Ford, but they, not him, hold the year option.

The only way I think he doesn’t remain in that seat is if Team Penske wants to move Austin Cindric up. Penske isn’t likely to expand to a four car team and with all three current drivers back in 2021, Cindric has no where to go other than the Wood Brothers so long as they don’t think another year in the Xfinity Series is needed.

Cindric, won the regular season championship in that series. Does he need another year? His dad is Tim Cindric, so he’s not going to go anywhere outside of the Penske family.

Ryan Blaney was 24th, 19th and 13th this round.

Blaney, had a solid first half of the regular season. In fact, I could make a case to where his No. 12 Ford was arguably one of the fastest cars on the race track. He jumped out of the gates to what should have been three straight top two finishes.

He was runner-up in Daytona. Was second at the time of a late race caution a week later in Vegas and second again before a tire problem in the closing laps at Fontana. He crashed to end the west coast swing at Phoenix, then the pandemic happened.

Still, after a rough resumption of his season at Darlington (16th, 21st) he came back with authority. Blaney, rattled off six top four finishes in a seven race span. The only hiccup was a crash while leading at Bristol on May 31.

The silver lining was that the pace was there and following a win in mid June at Talladega, he was there as arguably a championship sleeper. Unfortunately, he’s out already.

Blaney, had a disaster Round 1 to where he finished 24th in the Southern 500, 19th at Richmond and now 13th at Bristol. He’s had no top 10 finishes in his last seven starts of the season, and just one in the last nine races.

Furthermore, over the last 16 races, Blaney has just one top five. He has five top 10’s during that span at that. Eight of his last 16 races have seen him finish 19th or worse.

Add all of that up and you get a first round elimination.

“Unfortunate end for this whole group,” Blaney said. “Really proud of the effort. We’re not done. We can go try to win races.

“We just didn’t perform in the first round like we needed to to transfer,” said Blaney, who finished 13th. “We needed to step up. We had too many issues.”

Hard to advance when those are your finishes. Plus, Custer, DiBenedetto and Blaney combined to score no stage points on Saturday night too.

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